From the May 2-8, 2007 Sporting News.
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By Mel Antonen, USA TODAY
BUILDING — or rebuilding — a bullpen can be costly, as the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves learned in the offseason.
After trying to stabilize their 'pen for years, the Orioles shelled out $42.5 million to four free agent relievers.
"It's been tough," says Mike Flanagan, Baltimore's executive vice president of baseball operations. "I hope we have the problem solved. This isn't just a one-year hit."
After an inconsistent bullpen helped cost them a chance to play in their 15th consecutive postseason in 2006, the Braves traded a catching prospect, a starting pitcher and an emerging power hitter to refortify their bullpen.
"It's extremely difficult," Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz says. "In our case, it took the willingness to part with very valuable and talented players. But we've got as strong a bullpen as we have ever had here."
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Thanks to boosts from their new-look bullpens, the Braves (15-9, a half-game behind the Mets in the National League East) and Orioles (12-13, 4˝ games behind the Red Sox in the American League East) have shown marked improvements this season, especially when the teams' starting pitchers have been able to pitch deep into games.
The Braves, trying to regain contending status after finishing 18 games behind the Mets in the NL East last season, and the Orioles, who haven't compiled a winning record for a season since 1997, say their revitalized bullpens have improved clubhouse morale, taken pressure away from their offenses and relaxed the pitchers in their rotations.
"Last year it seemed we had to be perfect," says Braves starter John Smoltz, who had a 16-win season in 2006 but had the bullpen lose six leads in other games for him. "This year we've got some help, and that makes it nice. We feel really good."
LAST SEASON, THE Braves blew 16 of their first 35 save opportunities. They endured a 6-21 June and trailed the Mets by 13 games at the All-Star break. Atlanta's relief corps stabilized after it traded catching prospect Max Ramirez to the Cleveland Indians for Bob Wickman in July.
In the offseason, the Braves traded left-handed starting pitcher Horacio Ramirez, 27, who had two seasons of double-figure wins before injuries limited him to 14 starts last season, to the Mariners for coveted right-handed reliever Rafael Soriano. Then Atlanta traded 27-year-old first baseman Adam LaRoche, a left-handed batter who set career highs in home runs (32) and RBI (90) in 2006, to the Pittsburgh Pirates for left-hander Mike Gonzalez, a closer with 24 saves in 24 chances for the Pirates last season.
"It's been great to have three aces down there in the bullpen," Braves manager Bobby Cox says of Wickman, Soriano and Gonzalez.
Wickman, 38, is the candy bar-munching workhorse who, at 240 pounds, doesn't look like your typical closer. He was planning to retire after the 2006 season, but he re-signed with the Braves for one more year at $6.5 million.
Wickman came into the season with 247 career saves. Despite lacking a dominating pitch selection, he throws strikes, challenges hitters, locates pitches well and knows how to set up opposing batters.
"He can hit spots with all his pitches," Cox says. "He's got a good breaking ball, and he knows where his pitches are going. You better be able to spot pitches."
Wickman, who has six saves this season, went on the disabled list Monday with an upper back strain, but the Braves have Soriano and Gonzalez to fill his role.
Soriano, 27, who started his professional career as an outfielder, was arguably the best right-handed setup man in baseball last season, when he had a 2.25 ERA in 53 appearances for the Mariners. He had 65 strikeouts and 21 walks in 60 innings.
Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell says Soriano has an easy, fluid delivery to go along with a 91-mph fastball. "It seems hitters don't have a lot of time to react to him."
It seems Soriano is happy to be in the setup role for now. He says in the future he either wants to be a closer or starter. The Braves are open to the idea.
"Either one," Schuerholz says. "He's got the stuff to start or to be a closer, especially if something should happen to Bob Wickman. We wanted that depth and protection."
Gonzalez, 28, started in the Pirates system as a starter, but he became a reliever in 2003, his first season in the big leagues. By 2006, when he stepped in to be the Braves' full-time closer, he had a 2.17 ERA and was perfect in his save chances.
He says he's not worried about which innings he pitches during games, that he's just happy to be with a team that has a chance to play in the postseason.
"It doesn't bother me at all," Gonzalez says of his setup role.
Gonzalez, whose fastball is full of life and movement, showed his grit at Philadelphia on opening day. He walked Phillies pitcher Brett Myers on four pitches to start the bottom of the seventh, then gave up a double to Jimmy Rollins, putting runners on second and third with no outs. But Gonzalez struck out Shane Victorino and Ryan Howard and got Chase Utley to hit an easy groundout.
Schuerholz says trading LaRoche for Gonzalez made the deal "very rich" and the Braves couldn't have made the trade had they not had first baseman Scott Thorman. Thorman, who hit .298 with 15 home runs and 48 RBI in 81 games at Class AAA Richmond (Va.) before getting called up last season, started slow in 2007 and shared time at first with Craig Wilson, but Thorman's bat has come alive.
After his offseason bullpen acquisitions, Schuerholz has sensed a refreshed attitude among his players. "It changed dramatically: Their speak, talk, posture, language. There was a positive uptick."
"Our strength is our bullpen," catcher Brian McCann says. "Anytime we have a lead, we like our chances to win the game."
The players feel those chances have drastically improved since last season.
"It just wasn't any fun to have a lead and then have the bullpen come in and blow it," center fielder Andruw Jones says. "We feel good this year."
It's a feeling the Braves had during their record string of consecutive divisional titles, which began in 1991, when pitching remained the team's foundation.
"We've got to re-create that kind of pitching-rich world," says Smoltz, the Braves' Game 7 starter in the 1991 World Series, which Atlanta lost 1-0 in 10 innings to the Minnesota Twins. "That can only happen by going out and being dominant and not having any weaknesses. I think we've taken care of those concerns."
THE ORIOLES HAVE HAD a series of troubles with relief pitchers. Last season they banked on LaTroy Hawkins to stabilize their bullpen, but AL batters pounded him at a .300 clip. In 2005 they thought Steve Reed and Steve Kline could steady things, but they combined for a 5.10 ERA. In 2004 the Orioles hoped Mike DeJean would be their bullpen savior, but he was 0-5 with a 6.13 ERA in 37 games for them.
So after the World Series last fall, the Orioles made themselves heavyweights in the free agent market for relief pitchers. They struck early and often, snaring lefty Jamie Walker on a three-year, $12 million deal Nov. 21.
Less than a week later, they gave right-hander Danys Baez a three-year deal at $19 million. A few days after that, they signed right-hander Chad Bradford for three years at $10.5 million and Scott Williamson, who was slowed by bone chips in his elbow last season, for $900,000.
The Orioles even tried to a sign a fifth relief pitcher, right-hander Justin Speier, who had a 2.98 ERA in 58 appearances for the Toronto Blue Jays last year, but Speier signed with the Los Angeles Angels.
"We wanted a bullpen that wasn't prone to giving up home runs," says Flanagan, whose team gave up a major league-high 86 home runs last year.
Walker, 35, who had a 2.81 ERA in 56 games for the Detroit Tigers last season, says he couldn't believe how fast the Orioles came up with an offer for him. He was just getting home from Detroit after the World Series when the phone rang.
He says he was hoping for an offer of $6 million-$7 million, and the Orioles gave him $12 million. "It shows their commitment," he says.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland says Walker is almost impossible to replace. And with the Orioles, Walker's role will be expanded to more than just a left-handed specialist, which he was in Detroit.
"I hate it when people say to me, 'You're a situational lefty,' " Walker says. "My job is to get the big left-handed donkeys (out), guys like David Ortiz, Jason Giambi, Travis Hafner and Justin Morneau. But I can do more than that."
Besides Walker, the Orioles added experience to set up Chris Ray, 25, who had 33 saves in 2006, his first full season as a closer.
Baez, 29, had 111 career saves entering the season. Williamson, 31, had 21 saves for the Cincinnati Reds in 2003. (He went on the 15-day disabled list April 24 after going 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA in six games this season.) Bradford, a 32-year-old submarine-style pitcher, has pitched in six postseasons.
Baez, who pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Braves last season, has sometimes worked the eighth inning for the Orioles, allowing Ray to avoid multi-inning save opportunities.
Ray says two-inning stints made his arm sore last year. Now he says he could pitch the ninth inning virtually every day.
"These pitchers keep the momentum going, so it seems like it is always on our side in the ninth inning," Ray says. "It's a whole new feeling. We expect to win every game. These guys have experience. They aren't walking batters. They aren't giving up runs. They come in and throw strikes. This year we aren't just hoping to get the job done."
The performance of the Orioles rotation this season has given the bullpen the chance to shine. Orioles starters have a 4.57 ERA this season as opposed to 5.40 ERA last year.
The rotation has a mix of young pitchers and veterans. Righty Steve Trachsel, 36, won 15 games for the Mets last season and has been steady this year. Lefty Erik Bedard, 28, had a breakout year in 2006 (15-11, 3.76 ERA), although he hasn't been his best this season.
Another lefty, 23-year-old Adam Loewen, is 2-0 with a 3.20 ERA in his first five starts but has failed to pitch into the seventh inning. Right-hander Daniel Cabrera, 25, who was inconsistent last season, has pitched into the seventh inning in four of his first five starts.
"It's no secret that a bullpen can only be as good as the starting rotation," Walker says. "Bullpens can burn out. We want to be good in July and August, too."
BUT IN AN ERA when complete games are becoming extinct and quality starts (six innings allowing three earned runs or fewer) are becoming the gold standard for starters, a strong bullpen is a necessity.
The Braves' Gonzalez says never-ending scouting and video libraries make it difficult for starting pitchers to throw complete games. "It doesn't take a batter long, after two or three at-bats, to make the adjustments. That creates a need for a fresh arm out there."
Flanagan says potent offenses that drive up pitch counts make bullpens necessary. Last season relief pitchers worked 34.6% of the innings in the major leagues, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
"You have to be able to finish the game," says Bradford, who has pitched in the postseason for the Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Boston Red Sox and Mets. "I have yet to see a winning team that doesn't have a strong bullpen."
And through the season's first month, the Braves and Orioles have shown theirs off.
"In 2006, we learned that you can't win without a bullpen," Schuerholz says. "We had to make dramatic changes. We definitely didn't want to endure what we did last season."
To the rescue
Remade bullpens have vastly improved the Orioles and Braves. However, the Braves relievers have had to work less because their starting pitchers have pitched deeper into games. The Orioles starters haven't lasted as long an, overtaxing their bullpen at times.